Polar desert where McMurdo became my MacDowell

February 18, 2005

Nick Petford's expedition to one of the planet's most remote areas left him feeling like a cross between Shackleton and Bill Murray in Groundhog Day

This is a tale of frustration and elation - the frustration of living a Groundhog Day -like existence in New Zealand waiting for the weather to break, and the elation at being one of just a handful of people ever likely to walk the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica.

The story goes like this. Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be part of an international team of geologists who received funding through the US National Science Foundation (NSF) to visit the McMurdo Dry Valleys, a vast and spectacular cold desert forming part of the Transantarctic Mountains that divide the continent in two. Remarkably, much of the Dry Valleys region was discovered only during the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year, when they were flown over for the first time and photographed from above. Such technology was not available to the geologists on Sir Robert Falcon Scott's 1902-04 Discovery expedition as they explored the nearby southern Dry Valleys and Ferrar Glacier.

The total lack of vegetation and indeed any significant macroscopic flora and fauna (a fascinating and important exception being rock-loving microbes that have attracted recent attention from the astrobiology community) make the Dry Valleys unique worldwide in the degree and quality of their rock exposure. This is "big-picture" land, where the guts of an ancient volcanic magma system are revealed in unprecedented detail.

A team of US geologists, led by Bruce Marsh at Johns Hopkins University, first began work on unravelling the magma intrusion history of the Dry Valleys in the mid-1990s. Realising early on that there was several lifetimes' worth of work to be done, Marsh approached the NSF and the US Antarctic Programme (USAP) and, after some persuasion, convinced them to fund a field workshop to bring together geologists with a diverse set of interests and experience, with the aim of unravelling the complex magmatic history of the region. Most significantly, the Dry Valleys could offer special insight into how molten rock rides up from its source region, many kilometres inside the earth, to the surface.

Our team gradually assembled between Christmas and New Year in Christchurch, New Zealand, the official USAP gateway to Antarctica. Spirits and expectations were high. But despite best-laid plans, this financial and intellectual adventure was nearly thwarted by the Antarctic weather, something that should pose no threat at all during the late summer season.

Instead, a persistent and very slow-moving fog bank over McMurdo Sound kept the Pegasus ice runway that services incoming and outgoing aircraft closed.

Frustrated, our team of 21, plus other ice-bound scientists whose numbers grew more by the day, became increasingly desperate to escape the pleasant but dull city of Christchurch.

The USAP, via the Raytheon corporation (famous among other things as manufacturers of cruise missiles), coordinates all outbound personnel from custom-built premises close to Christchurch international airport. Prior to arrival in New Zealand, you are given instructions about your flight departure time to Antarctica and where and when to show up to get issued with your extremely cold weather (ECW) gear. This worked fine, and after parading around in five layers of clothing making sure it all fitted, we were packed and ready to leave the next morning. Except that morning never seemed to come.

In the movie Groundhog Day , Bill Murray plays a cynical weatherman doomed to relive the same day - and his frustrated pursuit of colleague Andie MacDowell - over and over, beginning each morning at the same time as he awakes to Sonny and Cher singing I Got You Babe . In our version, we were roused daily at 4am by an antipodean night receptionist with the words "sorry mate, flight delayed 24 hours".

After a second night of delays we managed to board an ice-bound C141 military transport plane, only to turn back halfway to Antarctica after nearly three hours of flying, in a technical manoeuvre known as a boomerang. This mild inconvenience was compounded by the atrocious level of discomfort that comes from cramming more than 100 people in full ECW gear into the back of a metal shell, crewed by burly servicemen whose idea of in-flight entertainment is to offer you a set of earplugs. The best way to secure leg room is either amputation or a seat next to the toilet, a 55 gallon drum of churning effluent. All this is, of course, bearable, if not enjoyable, while flying in the right direction. But joining the boomerang club is misery on wings.

So began our Groundhog Day -like existence in Christ-church, which under any other circumstances would be a welcome break from the northern hemisphere winter. The problem was that, with light drizzle broken mostly by heavy rain, Christchurch was not having a summer. As the days passed, we tried whatever we could to take our minds off the fact that each day we were stranded meant less time on the ice, and, ultimately, maybe a flight back home without ever having set one foot on earth's most remote continent.

Initially, the routine broke down into cultural stereotype. The Americans went cycling, jogging and hiking; the Brits went to the pub. When this grew monotonous, we hired a car, went swimming in hot springs, visited wineries, tried go-kart racing, boat tours, bowling and the movies. Each night we went to bed hoping to be Antarctica-bound in the morning, but woke instead to the prospect of another 24 hours in the twilight zone.

It was a strange feeling - a sort of dull fretting that, despite my best efforts to remain cheerful and make the most of a relatively pleasant incarceration, made it impossible not to shake off the idea that we had in fact died and were transients in an open prison awaiting deportation to warmer climes. So when we finally left the tarmac, eight days behind schedule, expectations were still high that we would get boomeranged again, and 24 hours later be on a return flight to Los Angeles or London. But we got lucky - the weather held, rubber wheels crunched on ice and as the loading bay door swung open to frame a distant Mount Erebus, it was as if Andie MacDowell herself had finally woken up beside me.

McMurdo Town is a novel waiting to be written. What is it that makes people want to work and play in one of the most inaccessible settlements on the planet? During summer, things are not too bad. McMurdo's population of 800 support staff and several hundred scientists provides just enough variety and new blood to prevent stagnation. The sun never sets, which makes stumbling out of Gallagher's bar at 11pm into broad daylight a tolerable, if unnatural, experience. But during the long winter? No thanks.

Despite its outwards resemblance to a frontier mining colony, McMurdo station is impressive to the extent that the equipment base in the science block would put some UK universities to shame. We worked shifts, three days camping in the field and three days at base, with full helicopter support.

Working this way meant enough samples were collected and data logged to keep us busy until the end of the year. Doubtless this level of resourcing will attract sidelong glances from the US geological community, who will rightly monitor research journals and conference meetings for evidence of money well spent.

And money there is - the US Polar Programme is funded annually to the tune of $1 billion. Standing on the ice waiting to leave for Christchurch, surrounded by hardware, including an impressive line-up of C-130s, it is hard to believe all this is done purely in the name of science. What other country could service personnel at the South Pole, while simultaneously fighting a war in several counties and planning a manned mission to Mars? One hideously in debt, perhaps, but there is a resonance of empire here that would have seemed only natural to Sir Robert Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Nick Petford is professor of earth and planetary science at Kingston University.

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